DILLINGHAM — In close to four hours of public testimony, dozens of people told EPA staffers that large-scale mining threatens a fishery and way of life in Bristol Bay. The unanimous opinion given during Wednesday's meeting in Dillingham, held in the middle of the work day, was that the EPA should finalize preemptive Section 404(c) Clean Water Act restrictions, not withdraw them and wait for an environmental impact statement.
The EPA is backing away from the use of preemptive Clean Water Act restrictions against large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. That comes as part of a settlement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and the company now says it is preparing to file for permits. As part of a public comment period, the EPA held two listening sessions in Bristol Bay this past week.
The EPA staff ran into the disappointment of well over 100 residents on Wednesday afternoon. (KDLG has since learned that EPA criminal investigators asked local police and state troopers about the "mood" in town and whether security was necessary to protect the bureaucrats.)
Dozens testified over three and a half hours, most speaking from the heart about their love for the region and their fear of a large mine.
"Without the strictest of protections like 404(c), our way of life, our fish, our clean, pure water will be decimated," said Dianne Folsom.
"There's a reason that we have all this fish: because we don't have any mines, we don't have any dams," said Albert Larson.
Dillingham sits downstream of one of the largest copper and gold deposits in North America. It is home to some of Pebble's most ardent opponents. Everyone who spoke Wednesday, including Peter Christopher from New Stuyahok, called for the EPA to reverse its current course.
"I would appreciate if you guys would pass that on to Scott Pruitt, to consider not withdrawing from the Clean Water Act. Thank you."
The EPA staffers spoke at length about the Trump administration's approach. Palmer Hough, from the EPA's Wetlands Division, reminded the audience that the agency had never finalized the preemptive restrictions, and is in no way limited from still blocking mining with Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. But if that authority is used, it will now likely happen within the normal permitting process, after an environmental impact statement has been completed.
Dan Dunaway from Dillingham told the EPA he's not sure the Obama administration was following a just course, but he doesn't necessarily like the alternative either.
"I get a sense that (in) the process for mining permits, there's not really a clear avenue to get to a 'no mine' versus 'a mine.' I think the process for mining permits in that sense is somewhat flawed and stacked against those of us who do not want to see a mine," he said.
Most of those who lined up to speak to the EPA on Wednesday have done so many times over the past seven years.
The Pebble deposit is on state lands set aside for mineral development. Believing the state was not up to the task of protecting the ecosystem and downstream fishery, Bristol Bay tribes asked for federal intervention back in 2010. That triggered the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, which led to the proposed mining restrictions. This was an outcome Katherine Carscallen, a commercial fisherman from Dillingham, wants to see upheld.
"Our state permitting process is not equipped to consider the long-term impact of Pebble's 'phase one' plan, which is what I consider it, (and) the domino effect of the mining district this would bring. That's why 404(c) allows for proactive decision, and there's no better place to apply this than Bristol Bay."
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who hails from Dillingham and represents the region, blasted the EPA for backing down and also agreed Alaska doesn't do enough to protect its salmon habitat.
"That's been the history of our state — that all major development projects get the benefit of the doubt. That's just been a fact of life in Alaska. It's time to change that now. EPA can play a large role in that. Please don't defy the wishes of the people of the region, the people of the great state of Alaska, and our country as whole," said Edgmon.
The EPA held a second listening session in Iliamna on Thursday. The public comment period closes Oct. 17.